“The Dictator” is a departure for Sacha Baron Cohen. Oh, don’t worry, it’s as self-consciously vulgar and politically incorrect as “Borat” and “Bruno,” and in many of the same ways, with outrageously bigoted characters providing satire of bigotry. What’s different is that Baron Cohen has shifted from the mockumentary style in favor of a traditional narrative structure.
Gone are the magnificently awkward scenes of innocent bystanders interacting with a bizarre character who they don’t realize is a character! Gone is the conceit that everything is unplanned and un-staged (a conceit that was never universally applicable anyway)! Gone are the “Jackass”-like stunts that inspire admiration and cringes in equal measure!
This change in style does render “The Dictator” — in which Baron Cohen plays a Middle Eastern tyrant — slightly less electric than its predecessors, like a TV show that used to air live but is now pre-taped. Baron Cohen and his writers (“Seinfeld” alumni Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer) have assigned themselves an actual plot line to follow, leaving no room for improvisation. Under those strictures, and without the added jolt of encounters with angry civilians, “The Dictator” feels a lot less dangerous. It’s also just not as funny as “Borat” and “Bruno.”
Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, a brutal and stupid man-child who rules the fictional country of Wadiya with an iron fist. Like Khadafi and Kim Jong-Il (to whose memory the film is dedicated), Aladeen requires his subjects to love him and his news media to report that he is victorious in every endeavor. He’s accustomed to having his every whim catered to. He’s a man in need of comeuppance!
Under pressure from the international community to allow open elections and stop murdering his own citizens, Aladeen and his top adviser, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), plan a visit to the United Nations. While in New York, the traitorous Tamir has Aladeen kidnapped, replacing him with his body double, a borderline-imbecile goatherd. Aladeen escapes death at the hands of guest torturer John C. Reilly but loses his signature beard and with it his recognizability. Now he’s just a homeless nutcase in Manhattan.
Here the movie evolves amusingly into a romantic comedy, with Aladeen meeting Zoey (Anna Faris), an unshaven-armpits liberal feminist who runs a food cooperative and who is, it turns out, just as strident as Aladeen. Her company is catering the upcoming U.N. function, which Aladeen hopes will give him access so he can assassinate his double and re-take his rightful position. In the meantime, perhaps they will find love…
Aladeen’s loathsome treatment of women, ethnic minorities (i.e., anyone who isn’t Middle Eastern), and others is good for some shock-based laughter, and there’s something inherently funny about a rom-com formula being carried out by a cruel dictator and a humorless do-gooder. A scene in which Aladeen and a fellow Wadiyan exile (Jason Mantzoukas) have an innocent conversation in their native tongue that sparks terrorism fears thanks to their unfortunate usage of words like “911” (as in Porsche 911) and “boom” (as in fireworks) is a pretty good example of that kind of comedy-of-misunderstanding. Aladeen also delivers a speech that acutely skewers the current state of American democracy, though this is more trenchant than laugh-out-loud funny.
But many of the comic bits centered on innocuous subjects — like one where Aladeen is trying to zip-line between two buildings and finds himself the wrong weight — fall painfully flat. You start to think that Baron Cohen doesn’t know what to do without a hot-button topic to mess around with. For as taboo as “The Dictator” gets, it feels kinder, gentler, and more watered-down than his other work. If this is reform, I’ll take the old regime.
C+ (1 hr., 23 min.; )